A Study of Colossians 2:11-12
This letter to the Colossians was written because the church at Colosse was plagued by Judaizers and by Gnostics. The Judaizers were Jews who claimed that the Gentiles could not be fully Christians if they did not obey all the rules of the Ceremonial Law. On the other hand the Gnostics were people from Alexandria, Egypt, who denied the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and who changed the Scriptures wherever the Deity of Jesus Christ was in view.
The Judaizers were the overly conservatives, the legalists, and the Gnostics were the liberals, denying the Scriptures. A similar situation arose in Jesus’ days: The Pharisees, who were the legalists, and the Sadducees, who were denying the Scriptures. A similar situation has come upon us today: the Charismatics, who are the legalists who claim that God is still bringing audible messages today, and the Arminians, who are denying the Scriptures for they claim that we are not saved by God’s grace but by our own free will, and they are using the Gnostic scriptures to prove their point.
These two heresies are being addressed throughout this epistle to the Colossians, but especially in chapter 2. The text for this article is taken from Colossians 2:11-12, where the subject matters of circumcision and water baptism are brought up. Circumcision, as you know, is firmly entrenched in the Ceremonial Law, whereas water baptism has been a practice of the Christian world since the days that the Lord Jesus walked on this earth.
Therefore the title of this article is, “Circumcision and Baptism”. Most of the Christian denominations have taken these two verses as the proof-text for their claim that the ceremony of circumcision was after the cross replaced by the ceremony of water baptism.
Is that really so?
We must carefully read these verses and draw our conclusions. Let us begin to read at verse 6.
“Ye Are Complete In Him” (Colossians 2:6-15)
As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:
In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.
And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.
This passage begins with an admonition to be rooted and built up in Christ.
How do we do that?
It means we must study the Word of God. This is where we will be rooted in Christ, and so we will be built up in Him and be established in the faith, for faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Of course, we can only do that if we have been saved; for God’s irresistible grace must be with us when we study the Bible. That is why we are abounding therein with thanksgiving, for it is God who works in us, both to will and to do of His good pleasure.
Then in verse 8 God gives us a warning not to listen to the legalists or to the liberals, for they want to deceive us through worldly philosophies and human wisdom and not after Christ, the Word of God; for Christ is the beginning and the ending, and to His glory and to His credit must all history and prophecy flow. In Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, for Christ is Jehovah of the Old Testament.
This is how we recognize false gospels, for they will glorify man, rather than God. And then God says in verse 10, “And ye are complete in Him”.
Can you see the wonder of this statement?
If Christ is the head of all principality and power in this universe and in heaven, then there is no greater blessing than to be in Him, in Christ, for then we are complete in Him. We cannot be incomplete in Him. O, we still live in a sinful body on this earth, and we have not yet received our glorified body, but in God’s terminology it is as good as done. Now we are already complete in Him. Our works still have to be done, but they are all within the decree of God for the history of this earth. Our works are approved by God, for Christ has paid for all imperfections cleaving to those works. And thus we are already clean and righteous in God’s sight. This is the blessing for all those who have been born from above. Now we come to verse 11, and we have to ask the question:
What Circumcision? (Colossians 2:11)
In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:
The noun “circumcision” and the verb “to circumcise” appear three times in this verse, so it is the central object of this verse.
What circumcision is in view here?
Is it physical circumcision or spiritual circumcision, for this verse speaks about “circumcision made without hands”?
This verse has been misrepresented by many denominations for centuries, but it has been based on a superficial, historical reading of this verse.
Their reasoning is as follows:
Their first point of recognition is the historical circumcision of Christ on the eight day after His birth. And then they connect “In whom also ye are circumcised” …to… “by the circumcision of Christ”.
Is this not logical?
If we were in Christ from before the foundation of the world, according to Ephesians 1:4, then at the time that Christ was physically circumcised we were also circumcised with Him and in Him. Similar to when Christ was crucified we were crucified with Him. Since Christ came into the world on the Old Testament side of the cross, He had to submit Himself to all the rules of the Ceremonial Law, including circumcision. And since all His life He was without sin, He obeyed the Ceremonial Law perfectly, and He fulfilled that Law perfectly for us. And thus we do not obey the Ceremonial Law any more, for Christ has fulfilled our obligation for all time and eternity.
And so, verse 11 teaches us that we do not any more practice the ceremony of circumcision. And since verse 12 teaches us that we do practice water baptism, the thinking is that these two verses show that circumcision is replaced by water baptism. This is nice, but not correct. This is not what verse 11 teaches us, for there are more words from God there that have been neglected. First of all, physical circumcision is not in view at all in this verse, for two reasons: “The circumcision made without hands” points to the circumcision that God performs, which is the circumcision of the heart.
Moreover, the “putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” does not refer to the physical circumcision of Christ, but is pointing to forgiveness of sins of the body (the whole) of the sins of the flesh. All our sins are committed by our body, symbolized by the flesh.
Where our sins put away at the time of the physical circumcision of Christ?
No sins were put away at that time. There was only one time in all of history when sins were put away, and that was at the time that Christ suffered and died on the cross. And so, we have to reconsider verse 11 and its interpretation. Let’s do that now.
Spiritual Circumcision in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 10:12-16, 30:1-6)
In Deuteronomy 10 God commands His children to circumcise their heart.
But what exactly does that mean?
We are not able to circumcise our own heart. But God explains what this means here in Deuteronomy 10.
And who are considered His children?
Is all of Old Testament Israel considered His children?
Let us read Deuteronomy 10:12-16,
And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good?
Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the LORD’S thy God, the earth also, with all that therein is. Only the LORD had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day.
Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.
Who is God speaking to?
Which of the five meanings of Israel fits this context?
Can this refer to the nation of Israel, all of them who are camped here beside the Jordan River, and ready to enter the Promised Land?
For most of the nation of Israel remained unregenerate.
This applies to those who came out of Egypt with Moses, as we read it in Hebrews 3 and 4, and it applies as well to their children who went into the Promised Land with Joshua, as we can read it in Joshua 24.
They were not the Israel of God that the New Testament describes. But a small remnant from among them was truly saved, and they do belong to the true Israel of God. When God says in verse 12, “And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee”, this was addressed to that remnant chosen by grace from among the children of Jacob. It was a command spoken to them, but it was also spoken to us, for the Bible was written to all people and for all times, even for today. God spoke these words to the Israel of God, which is the remnant chosen by grace out of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, for God is not a respecter of persons.
And what does God require of us?
Verse 12 and verse 13 state it so clearly: We must fear Him, and walk in His ways, and love Him, and serve Him and keep His laws, and we must do it with all our heart and with all our soul. God does not require this from us for 5 minutes on Sunday morning, but God requires it from us every day, every minute of the day. In other words, we must be perfect all the time. This is what God commands us to do. This is what it means to circumcise our heart.
Can we do this?
Elect angels can do it, but humans cannot be perfect even for one minute. What God commands us here is impossible to obey, unless God takes away all the guilt of our sins. That is exactly what God has done for the Israel of God. He sent the Lord Jesus Christ to this earth to suffer and die for our sins on the cross as our substitute, so that we who were chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world could at some point in our life be made born from above, and receive the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of Christ that was already paid for at the cross. This is what God already hinted at in verse 15 when He said, “He chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day”. “Even you, as it is this day”!
What day does this refer to?
It refers to “this day”, which means “today”, and when we read this next year it still means “today”, every day, until the end of time. God chose the Israel of God one by one, the remnant chosen by grace out of all nations, and God takes all the credit for circumcising our heart at the moment when He made us born from above.
Just in case you did not understand what God was saying in Deuteronomy 10, and that you did not understand that it is God who must do the circumcising of the heart, and that He gets 100% of the credit for doing this, God gave us an additional passage in Deuteronomy 30:1-6 to make it abundantly clear that He receives all the credit for this.
And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath driven thee, And shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; That then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee.
If any of thine be driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will the LORD thy God gather thee, and from thence will he fetch thee: And the LORD thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers. And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.
Here God says clearly the He will circumcise our heart.
And when shall this come to pass?
Verses 1-2 tell us that this will come to pass when God has given us repentance in our heart, for repentance is also a gift from God. This will all take place simultaneously, for true repentance is a sign that God has made us born from above. And thus we see that spiritual circumcision is identified as circumcision of the heart. It is the circumcision that is made without hands, for God is a Spirit, and He does not have hands. This is the circumcision that was done to us, and was spoken of in Colossians 2:11. Let us now look at:
Spiritual Circumcision in the New Testament (Romans 2:25-29, Philippians 3:2-3, Colossians 2:11)
Does the circumcision of the heart appear in other places of the New Testament, other than in Colossians 2:11?
The answer is it appears in several places in the New Testament. We will have time only to look at a few passages in the New Testament, but God makes it abundantly clear that physical circumcision is nothing compared with spiritual circumcision. It is the circumcision of the heart that is of utmost importance. We read here in Romans 2:25-29,
For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?
And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfill the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:
But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
Verse 25 says that if you are circumcised in the flesh, it will profit you only until the first sin. At that moment your circumcision in the eyes of God is made uncircumcision, which means that in the next minute you have become just as unrighteous as any other human being who is under the wrath of God. That is terrible news for all those who think that their circumcision is of some credit to them in God’s eyes. Therefore, if uncircumcised Gentiles are converted by the grace of God, and are seen by God as righteous, their physical uncircumcision becomes of no value; they are seen as spiritually circumcised in the eyes of God. Therefore God now defines His terminology for who is a Jew in His sight. God says in verse 29, “he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God”.
In the New Testament time physical circumcision is of no value. Only circumcision of the heart counts. But this is an act of God which is entirely according to the good pleasure of God, and does not depend on something that we have done, or that we presently do, or that we possibly can do in the future.
In Philippians 3 we have a passage where the apostle Paul warns the Philippian church for Judaizers, who try to convince them to be circumcised, according to the Law of Moses. And again, this is not referring to the Moral Law, but to the Ceremonial Law. We read here in Philippians 3:2-3,
Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.
For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.
Beware of the legalists who cause the circumcision of the flesh. They are evil workers, working to establish the Ceremonial Law again. They are called dogs, and are on the way to Hell. Beware of them, for (and here comes the amazing statement of God) “We are the circumcision”. We who worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, we are the true circumcision in the eyes of God. We who have been born from above are the ones of whom the sins of the flesh have been cut away, for our circumcision of the heart means that all our sins have been washed away. And so, spiritual circumcision, or the circumcision of the heart, is totally identified with the cutting away of all our sins. Let us now return to the text of our article, Colossians 2:11.
In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:
The first half of Colossians 2:11 says, “In Christ we are circumcised with the circumcision of the heart”. This was done unto us.
And what does this entail?
What has been done unto Christ?
The second half of this verse explains that our circumcision of the heart is brought about by cutting off the entire amount of the sins of the flesh in the spiritual circumcision of Christ.
When were our sins cut off from the Lord Jesus Christ?
It was when He shouted with a loud cry, “It is finished!”
This event at the cross was the spiritual circumcision of Christ. There is no other moment in history when the entire body of the sins of the flesh was cut off from the Lord Jesus Christ. In Colossians 2:11 not the physical circumcision of Christ, but His atonement on the cross is in view.
And is this not what brings the greater glory to Christ?
His physical circumcision was an act of obedience to the Ceremonial Law. But His atonement was an incredible act of obedience to the Moral Law, for the wages of sin is death. It was an act of obedience to the Father so that mercy and grace might be given to all those who were destined to become the Bride of Christ. The context demands that this circumcision of Christ must be looked upon as a spiritual circumcision. And so, we have learned that the word “circumcision” has two different meanings. Which meaning must be given depends on the context. And so, once again we have seen the rule that the meaning of a word depends on the context. We should not be too quick to decide what the meaning of a word is, but we first must study the context. And now we have arrived at the context of the next verse, Colossians 2:12.
What Baptism? (Colossians 2:12, Romans 6:3-9, Matthew 3:11, 20:23)
Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.
Does this verse speak of water baptism?
Do you see any water there?
Some like to compare water baptism with the burial and the resurrection of Christ.
There is no comparison!
Christ was not buried underground. Christ was buried above the ground, in a cave that was the future burial place of Joseph of Arimathaea. And when Christ was made alive He did not move up out of the cave, but He stepped out of the cave horizontally, and then He sat on the stone that was rolled away to scare the dickens out of the soldiers that were watching Him step out of that cave.
But let us keep with the context.
Verse 11 speaks about the forgiveness of sins and about the sufferings of Christ on the cross. Verse 12 speaks about us being buried with Christ and being raised with Christ.
Again we see that the atonement of Christ is in view. And this observation agrees with what we find in many other parts of the Bible. But now the word baptism appears in this verse.
What baptism is this?
The words in Colossians 2:12 are remarkably close to the words we find in Romans 6:3.
Since we were in Christ from before the foundation of the world, our sins could be imputed unto Christ. He qualified to be our sin-bearer, our substitute. The Bible teaches that when Christ appeared before the judgment throne of God and was condemned we appeared before His throne as well with Christ and in Christ; when Christ was crucified we were crucified with Christ; when Christ endured the equivalent of an eternity in Hell we were there with Him and in Him; when Christ died we died with Christ; when Christ’s body was buried we were buried with Christ; when Christ rose from the tomb we rose with Him; when Christ ascended into heaven we ascended with Him; when Christ was seated on the right hand of the Father we are seated there with Him. And since we have already been judged and have already gone through the sufferings of Hell with Christ and in Christ, God will never send us to Hell again, for we have been there already.
Remember the words we have read in Colossians 2:12, “Buried with him in baptism”. There are five possible meanings of baptism.
What baptism is this?
Let the context of Romans 6:3-10 speak for this type of baptism.
Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin.
Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him:
Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.
We were baptized into His death.
Which type of baptism is this?
It was the baptism by fire that was announced by John the Baptist and by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 3:11 and in Matthew 20:23,
I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:
It was also announced by the Lord Jesus when He informed James and John about His death in:
And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.
The Lord Jesus called His atoning work on the cross a baptism, a washing of sins, and John the Baptist called it correctly a baptism by fire, because the Lord Jesus was going to endure the equivalent of an eternity in Hell.
And so, we come to the conclusion that the baptism in Colossians 2:12 is the baptism by fire, which is the washing of the Lord Jesus from our sins which were charged to His account. Nobody washed Him. He had to wash Him-self. He had to endure the full payment that was required for our sins. But since He was successful, He rose from the grave victoriously and showed Satan and all that are his that they have been defeated.
In Colossians 2 we read there of Christ’s baptism by fire, “Wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God”. In this baptism of Christ we share in His victory in that we are risen with Him.
And how do we know that we are risen with Him?
We know that because we believe what God said. God gave us that faith. It is the faith of the operation of God. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that (faith is) not of yourselves: it is the gift of God”.
And so, taking both verses 11 and 12 of Colossians 2 together we have seen a coherent interpretation that these two verses do not speak of circumcision and water baptism, but that these two verses speak of Christ’s atonement on the cross, and our involvement it, since we were in Christ from before the foundation of the world.
Now the question at hand is this:
Is it indeed true that circumcision was replaced by water baptism?
To answer this question we cannot use Colossians 2:11-12, but we must seek it by another way.
Was Circumcision Replaced by Baptism? (Genesis 17:10-11, 22:16-18, Galatians 3:29, Matthew 5:17, 2 Corinthians 3:11, 1 Corinthians 11:25, Exodus 24:8, Ezekiel 36:25, Hebrews 12:24)
What was circumcision?
Circumcision was a sign of the Covenant. God said to Abraham in Genesis 17
This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.
Circumcision was only a token of the Covenant between God and Abraham, and between God and the Seed of Abraham. The Seed of Abraham in the first instance refers to Christ, and in the second instance it refers to all those who were placed in Christ before the foundation of the world. And thus the oath that God swore to Abraham in Genesis 22:16-18 was a promise that the elect children of Abraham shall be as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is upon the seashore. This does not refer to the physical descendants of Abraham but to the remnant chosen by grace out of all nations for God says in Galatians 3:29 that only those who are in Christ are in God’s eyes considered the seed of Abraham.
Some who are in Christ lived on the Old Testament side of the cross, but the majority of those who are in Christ lived on the New Testament side of the cross. Those on the Old Testament side of the cross had to be circumcised according to God’s command in Genesis 17:10. Circumcision was one of the laws of the Old Testament Ceremonial Law.
Like many other ceremonies in the Ceremonial Law circumcision was a bloody sign, because it was pointing forward to the death of Christ. But when Christ died on the cross, all the signs and figures that were portrayed by the Ceremonial Law ceased to exist, because they were all fulfilled when Christ died. The Lord Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill”.
Therefore, when Christ died the Ceremonial Law had to be done away. And any bloody sign that was performed on the Old Testament side of the cross, if it needed to be replaced had to be replaced by a non-bloody sign. For if we look back to the atonement of Christ we see that all the blood that had to be shed was shed by Christ, and never to be repeated again. For example, the bloody sign of the Passover had to be replaced by the non-bloody sign of the Lord’s Supper. But circumcision was a sign of the Covenant on the Old Testament side of the cross. When we consider the Covenant on the New Testament side of the cross it is much more glorious than the Covenant on the Old Testament side of the cross. God says in 2 Corinthians 3:11, “For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious”.
Would then the more glorious Covenant on the New Testament side of the cross have no sign of the Covenant?
But that is not possible. And when we search the Bible we learn that on the New Testament side of the cross we have TWO signs of the Covenant. The Lord Jesus said in 1 Corinthians 11:25,
1 Corinthians 11:25
After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.
“The new testament in My blood” is the same as “The new Covenant in My blood”, for the word “testament” and the word “Covenant” is the same word. And thus it is certain that the Lord’s Supper is one of the signs of the Covenant, for the Lord tells us so. But there is another sign that replaces the blood that Moses sprinkled on the people as a sign of the covenant in Exodus 24:8. God says in Ezekiel 36:25
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.
This passage is anticipating water baptism as a sign of the New Covenant, for the New Covenant is in view in Ezekiel 36:26. The water that is sprinkled is symbolic for the blood of Christ. Likewise the blood that Moses sprinkled was symbolic of the blood of Christ. Moreover we read in Hebrews 12:24,
And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.
The blood of sprinkling refers to the blood of Christ, for it is a sprinkling that symbolizes the water sprinkled during water baptism. All these facts taken together lead us to water baptism as one of the signs of the New Covenant. Yes, circumcision and Passover were replaced by two signs of the New Covenant: Water Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However we may never call these New Testament Ceremonial Laws, for Ceremonial Laws had to be obeyed. They were an absolute requirement of God.
And let me finish by saying this:
Water Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not required for anyone’s salvation.
Salvation is entirely by grace, and grace must not be mixed with something that we must do. Praise God for giving us these two reminders of His suffering and death.
By Alfred Chompff